The Soft Underbelly of Europe's "Hard Core"

France and Germany used to see themselves as the European Union's "hard core," surrounded by concentric circles of less committed partners. Only the other four founding members of what was the European Community--Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg--were admitted into the innermost circle of Europe's true believers.

No doubt, the post-WWII reconciliation between France and Germany--who once perceived and fought each other as "hereditary enemies"--has been the motor of European integration for half a century. Today, however, that Franco-German couple looks more like Europe's soft underbelly. The motor has turned into a brake.

The traumatic experience of western disunity over Iraq in the UN Security Council--with the governments of Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder leading the resistance to the US/UK led invasion of Iraq--demonstrated that Franco-German bilateralism has destructive side effects. Their perceived claim to speak for Europe antagonized much of the Union.

A European "hard core" is not an end in itself. Its raison d'être is to overcome national selfishness and to set a good example. If guided by the spirit of multilateralism, the Franco-German pair pulls Europe together. But this is precisely what France and Germany now refrain from doing in many fields of European integration.